Sustainable polymers for a greener future


As the world observes the UN Zero Waste Day on 30 March 2024, the spotlight is on initiatives that promote sustainable practices and innovative solutions to combat waste generation. In this global call to action, COST is proud to present the transformative work of the COST Action European network of FURan based chemicals and materials FOR a Sustainable development (FUR4Sustain).

Through the lens of sustainability and waste reduction, Fur4Sustain embodies the principles of circular economy and responsible resource management. This Action exemplifies the commitment of European researchers, policymakers and stakeholders to address pressing environmental challenges while promoting economic prosperity.

In this article we explore the remarkable efforts of Fur4Sustain to shape a future where waste is minimised, resources are used efficiently and ecosystems thrive.

Tackling plastic pollution

plastic trash on water

Polymers, particularly those made from fossil fuels like many typical plastics, can take an extremely long time to decompose. Some estimates suggest that it can take hundreds to thousands of years for certain types of plastic to break down in the environment. The slow degradation of these materials contributes to environmental pollution and can have harmful effects on ecosystems, wildlife and human health.

That’s why there are growing efforts to reduce the environmental impact of polymer waste through recycling and the development of green alternatives. These environmentally friendly options exist in the form of furans, organic (bio-sourced) compounds.

FUR4Sustain brings innovation by tackling old problems (like the case of petrol-based polymers and materials) with new solutions based on furans.

The Action promotes the use of sustainable furan-based polymer products in the market. They focus on 2.5-furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA), a chemical that can come from renewable resources like agricultural waste and forestry by-products. As FDCA can replace a commonly used petrochemical acid, it provides a green alternative to traditional materials.

Discover the Fur4Sustain videos:

Professor Pavle Spasojevic, from the Innovation Center of the Faculty of Technology and Metallurgy at the University of Belgrade, and the Science Communication Coordinator for FUR4Sustain Action, explains how the Action FUR4Sustain is working towards more eco-friendly products, transitioning from a fossil-fuel-based economy to a bio-based one by incorporating materials like an agricultural waste.

What is FDCA and where can it be used?

Furans, such as Furandicarboxylic acid, usually referred to as FDCA, are building blocks used to produce polymers using biomass from plants as a starting material. FDCA is mainly used as a raw material for producing thermoplastic polyesters, which are a sustainable replacement for polyethylene terephthalate (PET). One of the most successful examples of such materials is poly(ethylene 2,5-furandicarboxylate) (PEF). PEF is a 100% renewable material, possessing excellent properties including high barrier and thermal resistance as well as mechanical strength. These features make PEF an ideal choice for various applications such as the production of smarter food packaging solutions. it is expected to create market niches and make a full market breakthrough.

In addition to packaging materials, FDCA can serve as an essential foundation for coating materials, including wood coatings, adhesives, printing inks, and materials for additive manufacturing.

Action flyer presenting alternative solutions to plastic packaging
Flyer of Fur4Sustain

Challenges and opportunities of FUR4Sustain

Currently, the scarcity of raw materials results in a pricey FDCA, which constitutes a potential obstacle to its wider adoption. Yet, despite this challenge, one member of the FUR4Sustain consortium, Avantum, is constructing a new PEF plant. which could result in a positive impact on the adoption of FDCA. According to Avantum’s commercial forecasts, the cost of PEF will be 70 to 250% higher than that of PET. This could be attributed to the superior physical characteristics of PEF, its lower greenhouse gas emissions and reduced reliance on non-renewable energy,  for which Avantum believes that consumers would be willing to pay a premium.

FUR4Sustain is bridging science and industry

The COST Action ‘FUR4Sustain’ has succeeded in bridging the gap between science and industry by creating a knowledge-based interdisciplinary community on the whole value chain of furans. This helped overcome technological, industrial, and social limitations that hinder their wide deployment in market applications. During the FUR4Sustain Action, new partnerships and collaborations were formed and will continue beyond the conclusion of FUR4Sustain, resulting in further joint proposals in both scientific and industrial fields. Scientists at Fur4Sustain COST Action have investigated the use of FDCA in the production of polyurethane materials. The exciting news is that the versions incorporating FDCA performed better than those using traditional petro-based ingredients. Furthermore, Fur4Sustain has made significant strides in the area of 3D printing. The Action used FDCA in bio-based UV-curable materials, improving their strength and capacity to produce intricate designs.

Besides everyday materials, FUR4Sustain worked on important processes. For example the Action developed a simple, greener and continuous way to recycle polyesters, such as PEF or PET which are widely used in plastic bottles and typically used only once and then discarded. Their efforts gained recognition in the ‘2022 HOT Green Chemistry article’ in the Green Chemistry journal’s special collection. “It’s not just science; it’s science that impacts global issues. It’s impactful science”, commented Pavle. Fur4Sustain is contributing to the European Green Deal objectives, by focusing on turning climate and environmental challenges into opportunities to develop sustainable furan products and making the transition inclusive for all.

“It’s not just science; it’s science that impacts global issues. It’s impactful science”

Prof. Pavle Spasojevic, Science Communication Coordinator for FUR4Sustain
photo of a man with his arms crossed

FUR4Sustain works for a greener tomorrow

FUR4Sustain envisions a gradual shift towards sustainable materials in the upcoming decades. Nevertheless, a rapid and complete transition may be challenging due to the complexities involved., it is therefore important to continue supporting research, policy changes, and technological innovations to accelerate this transition and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Over time the price of bio-based polymers will drop to a comparable level to the petrochemical ones. How long this will take depends on us. If we are willing to pay more for the environment now, the carbon-neutral economy will come sooner. 

Additional information

View the Action website

Discover the Action network  

Discover the COST Action Blog: FUR4Sustain and Young Happy Hour

Discover the Action Publications